Photo: Bacon Bites by ~tasadatostadas from Deviantart

When the number crunchers at the EPIC project noticed a significant statistical association between processed meat consumption and premature death, someone involved thought it was a good idea to go public. And what better way to draw their findings to the attention of the British public than a new “healthy lifestyles” message? Yeah…. Right.

Catapulted briefly to the top of the news, the recommendation that the “safe” level of consumption of processed meat was now down from 70 grams to 20 grams per day was met with widespread mickey taking and much common-sense scepticism.

One reason for these reactions could be that the people responsible for this latest bit of official lifestyle advice seem not to have been paying attention to any developments in the field of health promotion communication over the last twenty years. If they had, they would have realised that the following short list of problems might have been worth thinking about

  1. “Processed meat” is not a food category that many people use in any normal day-to-day sense. So finding out that the recommended level of consumption of the stuff has gone down from 70 grams to 20 grams might not be that meaningful. And even if people know precisely what is being demonised, they probably haven’t the faintest idea what their daily consumption in grams is. Unless they are veggies, of course – and then it’s zero.
  2. Let’s, for argument’s sake, credit your average media consumer with a bit of intelligence. In that case, they probably thought to themselves “I bet this story is basically about cured products like chorizo and bacon”. And then it’s practically a racing certainty that their next thought was something like “hang on a minute… surely the health effects of the cheapest, pinkest, fattiest supermarket salami can’t be the same as those of the poshest, most organic, air-dried, lean mountain ham?”. And they’re quite probably right – but a relatively blunt instrument like the EPIC dataset can’t help us with that.
  3. Health risks come in all shapes and sizes and people’s perceptions of them and reactions to them are known to be deeply complex from a sociological and cultural point of view. Where you are in the socio-economic pecking order has a huge effect on your relationship with a whole range of things that threaten life and life quality. The list could legitimately include: unemployment, poverty, climate change, pollution, gun crime, house prices, Mid-Staffordshire and terrorism. So the suggestion that you might like to spend some worry time on your personal ‘bacon-rashers-per-day-number’ was pretty much bound to be met with a snort and a chortle. It’s not exactly like smoking sixty a day or living next door to Fukushima is it?
  4. People have an annoying habit of mapping “health advice” onto their own lives and their own observations. It has been called “Lay Epidemiology” (by me) and has also been called “common sense” by a lot of other people. Any trawl through the phone-in shows on the day of the press release will have yielded dozens of callers and shock jocks pointing out that not only did their Uncle Norman eat a constant diet of bacon and sausages, he also lived till 95. And what about that woman from the office? You know, the one who was a vegan exercise fanatic and dropped dead at the age of 37? So they quite reasonably draw their own conclusions. I was listening to Radio 2 that day (I know….) and more than one caller stated that, with the state of elderly care in our country, who wants to live very long anyway? Like it or not, each one of these ‘throw away lines’ is a nail in the coffin of successful lifestyle change.

The labelling of this story as a ‘bit-of-a-laugh’ and the ‘silly-season-come-early’ was entirely predictable. Come on Public Health scientists! This just isn’t good enough. Epidemiology is a fascinating, socially useful and politically significant discipline. And Health Promotion, if properly handled, can be a huge force for good. Look at the smoking ban.

But trying to turn the EPIC findings about processed meat into a lifestyle message has led to the whole Health Sciences world becoming, yet again, a laughing stock. And this time it’s thoroughly deserved.

Now – let me get back to my horse-burger and chips……..